The ‘N-Word,’ the apology and the unsettling matter of racism and anti-semitism at the State House

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State Rep. Nicole Klein Knight, left, and RAD NH board member Jonah Wheeler are at the center of a controversy about the use of the “N-word” at the State House.

MANCHESTER, NH – The latest controversy at the NH State House involving accusations of racism and an elected state rep is not so black and white.

It’s complicated, and it depends on who you ask. Ultimately, it is yet another political morass that is casting an unflattering light on New Hampshire politics.

If you ask the dozen BIPOC community leaders who have publicly called out State Rep. Nicole Klein Knight, D-Manchester, for “racist behavior” during a Jan. 20 encounter at the State House with a volunteer board member of Rights and Democracy NH, there is no excuse for using the “N-word” in a conversation the two had in a hallway.

Although there were no witnesses to the conversation, the BIPOC group maintains that Klein Knight said “n*****” multiple times to make a point.” They qualified in their Jan. 30 statement that her use of the word, while not used directly toward Wheeler, “crossed a line in aggressively using a word with such a horrible history to intimidate a Black constituent.”

If you ask Klein Knight, she recalls the exchange differently, and views what’s transpired in the past two weeks as “cancel culture” and retribution for a philosophical fissure-turned insurmountable divide between herself and her former allies.

Klein Knight is Jewish, and in the past year says she has had to distance herself from RAD NH members for what she regards as an apparent anti-semitic stance by the organization on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Their two versions of what happened Jan. 20, says Klein Knight, intersect where she and RAD NH parted ways, shortly after State Rep. Maria Perez, D-Milford, found herself on the hot seat after posting a Tweet using a controversial slogan, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” that is embraced by pro-Palestinian activists and rejected by many Jews as anti-semitic, a position also endorsed by the Anti-Defamation League.

In the three weeks since the incident in question, Klein Knight has appeared before House Speaker Sherman Packard and his six-member bipartisan Speakers Advisory Group for a formal review. Packard on Feb. 10 issued a letter accepting Klein Knight’s explanation and remorse. He said the advisory group recommended a letter of caution be sent to Klein Knight as a reminder of legislative standards of behavior, and he urged her to apologize to Wheeler.

Her apology, issued Tuesday and released to the public as well as via email to Wheeler, is not accepted, says the group of 12 leaders, some of whom are affiliated with RAD NH. They countered with a press release rejecting her apology as “empty” shortly after Klein Knight’s brief statement went out to the public.

The Conversation

According to Klein Knight, her conversation with Wheeler began outside the chambers around advocacy for mental health legislation she was championing. Wheeler said he was not the person in charge of policy for the group, but that he would bring the legislation to the attention of RAD NH’s political director, Asma Elhuni. Klein Knight bristled, and expressed her lack of trust in Elhuni, who was once an ally.

“I told him I can’t stop someone from testifying about legislation, but Asma makes me uncomfortable,” Klein Knight said. Wheeler pressed her for an explanation.

“He was asking me why I feel uncomfortable, and so I tried to explain my right to my Jewish identity and how I didn’t feel supported by RAD NH anymore.  I was trying to relate to him as another minority, and he got offended by that because of my skin color. He said he gets more harassed because he is Black, and in making his point he used the N-word multiple times,” Klein Knight said.

“I shouldn’t have done it, but I repeated the word just once, and what I said was ‘that word is racist, just like saying ‘kike’ is anti-semitic.’ I hate both of those words, and I knew as soon as I said it out loud that I shouldn’t have, but I thought we were having an educated discussion about something that’s important and emotional for both of us.”

The two parted ways. Sometime later that day, says Klein Knight, Wheeler approached her and asked her to apologize for saying the N-word. He was using his cell phone to record their interaction.

“He started following me. I was going to apologize about how the conversation we had escalated, but in that moment I also felt like there was something off about it. Why was he following me and recording me? I felt uncomfortable and unsafe, and started to move away from him toward the elevators. He followed me in and it was just the two of us, and he was still recording me. I got upset,” she says.

“I felt he was trying to provoke me or catch me in a ‘gotcha moment’ when there were literally white supremacists in the next room testifying on a succession bill,” Klein Knight said. “He told me he didn’t think I was racist but demanded an apology. I had no malicious intent. Anyone who knows me knows what I stand for.”

She went to the security station but there was no security guard there. She asked a state Democratic party staffer who was passing by to stay with her as a witness.

“He realized what was happening and suggested we all go our separate ways. I went with him so I wouldn’t be walking in the dark alone or being followed,” she said.

In their Jan. 31 letter detailing a very different version of the exchange, the BIPOC group maintains Klein Knight is the one who said the N-word “multiple times” and that despite Wheeler repeatedly asking her to stop saying the word, her response was to call security on him. “Not only did she verbally abuse him, but the representative put this young man’s safety at risk in a situation she started, continued, and escalated.”

They also wrote that Klein Knight’s “behavior the past few months has been alarming and has become increasingly dangerous. The representative has cut ties with nearly every BIPOC organizer in the state and made baseless and biased accusations against many of us.”

Alissandra Rodríguez-Murray, one of the 12 community leaders who signed the original complaint against Klein Knight and a former member of RAD NH, said in a follow-up interview with the Ink Link that Klein Knight was way off base, not only for using the N-word but for casting aspersions as to what RAD NH members stand for.

While Rodriguez-Murray acknowledged the rift between RAD NH and Klein Knight reverts back to the organization’s pro-Palestinian activism, they wholeheartedly dispute there is any anti-semitism within the group and sees the estrangement differently.

“Nicole has always been a controversial outspoken person, but lately she’s been attacking people who are her allies – making baseless accusations about many of us, and it’s been a lot of people of color, including myself,” Rodríguez-Murray said.

“Nobody told her she wasn’t a minority or not allowed to take offense to that slogan. Yes, it all started with the Palestine stuff and what alarmed those of us who have been working with her is she is normally so supportive of our efforts – especially under the circumstances between Israel and Palestine,” Rodríguez-Murray said.

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NH State Rep. Maria Elizabeth Perez of Milford, left, in Manchester, during the state police action at a homeless encampment at the Hillsborough County Courthouse in November of 2019. Photo/Carol Robidoux

Rodriguez-Murray relayed how Klein Knight turned negative after RAD NH showed support for Rep. Maria Perez, D-Milford, who found herself on the hot seat after a Tweet she posted Oct. 23, 2021, repeating the slogan,  “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” Perez removed the Tweet after it stirred controversy, but remained under fire, accused of anti-semitism by some colleagues as well as leadership from state and national Jewish groups.

Rodríguez-Murray said RAD NH members tried to mediate the situation and defended Perez.

“Maria has never been anti-semitic, but from there it’s like Nicole has escalated these feelings that everyone’s against her. There were multiple Jewish people we tried to go through to talk with her, none of who believed any of us were anti-semitic, but she refused to have a conversation with us or mediation with us, even led by a Jewish person,” Rodriguez-Murray said.

“This literally all came from that Tweet from Maria. Nicole thinks that Asma defending Maria was anti-semitic, but nothing that Asma said was anti-semitic,” they said. “Asma referred to the [U.S. foreign policy organization] Jewish Voice for Peace and the history of the phrase [in her Tweet], and after Asma made that post, that’s when Nicole cut everybody off.” 

Rodríguez-Murray says things could have gone differently if Klein Knight had tried to talk it out with group members.

“She didn’t come to any of us directly to talk about why it hurt her. She brought it to the State House and the media. If she’d come to me one-on-one and explained how that phrase made her feel, I would have respected her feelings of how it impacted her as a Jewish person in a way it wouldn’t impact me. She’s the one who escalated this. I’m frustrated she’s playing victim when she was the one to bring this whole thing public,” Rodriguez-Murray said.

Again, Klein Knight sees the situation differently. She says she initially stood in defense of Perez, but as that situation unfolded in public – as well as on social media and in closed group chats – she did not feel heard or supported, and she is not the only Jewish ally to distance themselves from RAD NH of late.

Laura Aronson resigned from RAD NH in December.

“I started having issues with certain people back in May, principally Asma Elhuni, who is strongly focused on the Palestinian issue, I did not disagree with her of anything of substance. I agree that the Palestinian people have gotten a raw deal, and it’s a problem, but I felt I was being attacked because I’m a Jew,” says Aronson. “She tried to tell me Zionism isn’t part of Judaism, it was highly rhetorical – there are Jews in Israel outraged about the treatment of Palestinians, but when she tries to alienate Jews from Israel, I have to draw a line.” 

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Rights & Democracy Politics Director Asma Elhuni

She had a growing concern about an organization that was supposed to be focused on New Hampshire rights and democracy issues having such a vocal stance on a complex international issue. When she expressed her concern to RAD leadership, she got no immediate response, and eventually felt she was on the outside.

Aronson supports Klein Knight because she has seen her effectiveness in the trenches of discrimination.

“Anyone from Manchester knows she’s been an outstanding state rep. I met Nicole when we were standing in front of the bus station in Manchester for immigrants because they were being targeted by ICE. They were boarding buses and demanding IDs of people on the bus without a warrant. ACLU of Maine and NH joined in and challenged this practice. The bus company didn’t initially change their policy, so we had a once-a-week vigil in front of the bus station, and eventually, they changed their policy. And within two weeks the bus company here changed its policy, and at that point we didn’t need to be standing on the corner,” Aronson says.

“Nicole was instrumental, and at that point she decided to run for state rep, and I got more deeply involved with organizations supporting immigrants and immigration policy and I went on to found Never Again NH. Nicole went on to run in her ward and she has been instrumental in passing very progressive legislation that’s good for the state. She’s been extremely conscientious with attendance, and responsive.”

Aronson says there is a larger picture that needs to be acknowledged.

“Every Jewish organization in the state is in lockdown. At my synagogue in Concord nobody gets in without being screened, somebody has to let you in and during high holidays we pay an off-duty policeman for security. Everyone has heightened measures. Jews are being killed. We’re moving in the direction of Europe, you can’t go into a synagogue without making an appointment. That’s the way it’s going here, people who go to churches where it’s open don’t appreciate what it’s like to be Jewish,” Aronson said.

“As a politically active person, I now feel I’m being attacked from the right and the left; I don’t have anywhere to stand. People on the left are successfully pushing Jews out of the left, which is too bad. Jews have been some of the biggest leftists, always.”

Klein Knight agrees that the complexities of Middle East policies and politics is not easily understood, and has been beyond peaceful resolution for decades.

“The conflict between Israel and Palestine – it’s a long history. Some scholars have spent their whole lives trying to figure it out. I agree with Bernie Sanders’ two-state solution, and I do believe Palestine and Palestinians haven’t gotten a fair shot. And I am critical of Israel, but I am also a Jew and that slogan might mean freedom to Palestinians, but to me, it’s about the destruction of my people,” Klein Knight said.

The Apology


Feb. 15 ,2022

“I realized it was wrong for me to use the racist slur that you said. I immediately regretted it, and agree that no one should be using that language, and I apologize from the bottom of my heart for the pain it has caused. If you ever want to have a discussion with me about this I will be more than happy to do so, don’t hesitate to reach out.”

Representative Nicole Klein Knight


Klein Knight says she acted on advice not to speak publicly about the incident until there was due process at the State House, which concluded Feb. 10. Although she felt the hearing was fair, she believes that the entire situation has been mischaracterized and misconstrued, and that it has marred relationships within her own party, and the community.

When asked if she would like to try and repair the relationships with those who signed the letter of complaint against her, many of whom she once considered allies –Sebastian Fuentes, Deborah Opramolla, Asma Elhuni, Clifton West, Marcus Ponce de Leon, Jordan Thompson, Carlos Cardona, Emma Shapiro-Weiss, Grace Kindeke, Erika Perez, Duaa Zahra and Rodríguez-Murray Klein says she would ‒ under the right circumstances.

“I’d be open to talking to RAD with the appropriate people present, with other Jewish legislators present, because I’m not the only one who feels uneasy with RAD. Unfortunately, we’re all afraid of becoming targets,” she said.

In their response to Klein Knight’s apology, the BIPOC leaders said they decided to go public about the incident after “multiple attempts from several of the signers to meet and discuss the matter directly with her,” to “help her recognize her actions and be held accountable for the harm done.”

Klein Knight disputes that statement, and says no one reached out to her personally.

The BIPOC leaders rejected her apology as void of sincerity, using “victim-blaming” and citing a Tweet she posted about being unfairly judged.

Allissandra
Former member of Rights & Democracy Alissandra Rodriguez-Murray at a climate change rally in Manchester in June of 2020. File Photo/Winter Trabex

“A genuine apology must communicate sincere empathy, remorse and a promise to learn from the mistake. Someone who is truly apologetic does not scorn or blame those they hurt. We send this statement to make it clear that Rep. Klein Knight has not made things right. This situation has only revealed the depths of racism in the NH State House, and on all sides of the aisle.”

Klein Knight says she has learned a valuable lesson in all of this. Her apology comes from her heart, which has always been aligned with those who are oppressed including members of the BIPOC community, and her record supports that. She also concurs with the group’s assessment that there are deep rifts within the State House on both sides of the aisle that need to be confronted.

“At the end of the day this is a citizen legislature. We’re all flawed and we’re all human. We need to do better, all of us,” she said.

“I am so heartbroken about all of this, it’s been a nightmare. And I’m not trying to excuse what happened on January 20. I’m truly sorry I said that word, but I’m also sad that this group of people was so quick to cancel me, spending so much time and energy trying to take someone out who works so hard and actually gets things passed for civil rights.”


 

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About this Author

Carol Robidoux

PublisherManchester Ink Link

Longtime NH journalist and publisher of ManchesterInkLink.com. Loves R&B, German beer, and the Queen City!